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Billboard Ban in Mount Laurel Upheld by Federal Court

Jan Hefler, Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer

In a 14-page opinion released this week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third District in Philadelphia upheld Mount Laurel’s 2008 billboard ban the township’s stretches of I-295 and the New Jersey Turnpike.

Interstate Outdoor Advertising L.P. appealed, saying the ordinance was unconstitutional because it limited free speech and was based on flawed traffic studies.

The court said that the town’s “conclusion that billboards affect traffic safety and aesthetics” was reasonable, and that municipalities have the right to regulate billboards.

Interstate Outdoor, a regional billboard company, had sought permission from the town’s zoning board to erect four billboards along I-295, a six-lane highway, the opinion said. Drew A. Katz, chief executive of Interstate Outdoor, also is a director of Interstate General Media, the company that owns The Inquirer. His father, Lewis Katz, a partner in Interstate General Media, is former chairman of Interstate Outdoor.

Interstate Outdoor presented an expert witness who testified that an analysis of accidents on I-295 revealed it was not a hazardous highway in Mount Laurel. But the court noted that it was possible the “precise reason the accident rate is so low” is the lack of billboards.

The ruling means Mount Laurel “will retain its existing ‘billboard-free’ ” character, said Christopher J. Norman, the township’s special counsel in the case. Only two small billboards appear within the town’s borders because they were erected before the ordinance was adopted.

Norman said “the opinion sets the law on regulating billboards” in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Louis L. D’Arminio, who represented Interstate Outdoor, did not return a call for comment.

The court agreed that the town’s ordinance limited Interstate’s speech but said that was overshadowed by regulatory interests. “Interstate alleges that the complete ban on billboard messages does not allow for alternative channels for communication . . . to the specific target audience of the drivers traveling on I-295,” the court wrote.

But there are many alternative ways to get the message out, including Internet advertising, direct mail, radio, newspapers, and television, the court said.